For traveling Catholics, it is comforting to experience the universal welcome of the Body of Christ. We walk into Mass celebrated in any language — anywhere — as if at home, united in the Eucharist. 

And yet it is the particular churches, specific congregations and certain celebrants who have welcomed my family during summer vacations that are most memorable.

I recall the pale-yellow walls of the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea in Key West, Florida, for example, the morning sun tinted by pastel-stained glass and an island breeze blowing through windows propped open along both sides of the nave.

Or the lodge-like interior of the Prince of Peace Newman Center chapel at the University of Washington in Seattle. Its dark, bricked walls and open-truss ceiling set an intimate stage late one Sunday evening as two Dominican novitiates delivered vocational testimonies by candlelight to a spellbound group of college kids, including my three.

The differences we encounter and cherish from church to church make me wonder: Does unity require uniformity? Isn’t sameness the succor we seek as Catholics away from home?

In truth and creed, no doubt. One Lord. One faith. One baptism. Be thou our vision, O Ruler of all.

But perhaps the divine is in the details. After completing his masterpiece Ulysses, Catholic novelist James Joyce commented on why nearly all of his fiction was set in his native city, though he spent most of his adult life living abroad.

“I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.”

The Catechism contains and explains this paradox. “The celebration of liturgy, therefore, should correspond to the genius and culture of the different peoples,” it states. “In order that the mystery of Christ be ‘made known to all the nations … to bring about the obedience of faith,’ it must be proclaimed, celebrated, and lived in all cultures in such a way that they themselves are not abolished by it, but redeemed and fulfilled: It is with and through their own human culture, assumed and transfigured by Christ, that the multitude of God’s children has access to the Father, in order to glorify him in the one Spirit(1204).

If the glory of God is the human person fully alive, as St. Irenaeus taught in the second century, then isn’t the glory of God also each human church fully alive?

It seemed so at Holy Cross in Kalaheo, Hawaii, this summer. Wall fans whirred inside the modest church, providing a bit of relief for all gathered, including some two-dozen high school and college graduates capped and gowned for the baccalaureate Mass.

The service was casual and long, but also friendly and vibrant, infused with a strong sense of place. It’s what one might expect in the land of the shaka or “hang-loose” sign (a fist with thumb and pinky extended) that means one need neither rush nor worry.

One might not expect to be invited to the altar for a special visitor’s blessing with a handmade lei, however, or to learn that the presiding Filipino pastor lived briefly in your home state more than 4,000 miles away. We certainly didn’t expect lagniappe in the form of a rosary as a parting gift so far from Cajun Country.

Our faith as a family has grown through the Masses we incorporate into travel.

At St. Clare’s Mission in Three Rivers, California, we cramped the regulars when our family filled a pew, yet parishioners welcomed us and other tourists warmly, asking for introductions at the commissioning.

Visitors from as near as New Mexico and as far away as France all joined in the small congregation’s Taize chant to invoke the Holy Spirit.

Each encounter with a unique and unrepeatable church community fully alive, Catholic to its core but clothed in local culture, is an opportunity to grow in faith. Professing our faith surrounded by brothers and sisters whose ethnicity and native tongue may be different but whose beliefs and birthright are the same, for example, is what “catholic” truly means. It reminds us that we are pilgrims on a journey to the City of God, whose house is big and has many rooms.

How powerfully we are evangelized when we visit sacred spaces and holy people far from the familiarity and comforts of home.

 

Kelly King Alexander writes from Prairieville, Louisiana.